Since the inception of social media celebrities have faced a new breed of paparazzi – the general public. With misbehaving travellers and high maintenance VIPs making for headline grabbing tabloid pieces, videos and social media posts, Beth Blair delves into the new world of flying celebrities and the emerging upscale market appealing to famous travellers.

In July 2019 American rapper Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn, who carries the stage name ‘Future’, arrived at Ibiza Airport, Spain and was accosted by a group of ten fans who requested a selfie with the singer. When Future declined the photo opportunity the group became verbally aggressive. During the altercation, a bystander filming the scene captured the conflict escalating when one of the tourists ran and jumped on Future’s bodyguard from behind, striking him in the head with a rock, causing the man to collapse. In a similar 2016 case, Fifth Harmony singer, Ally Brooke Hernandez, was traveling through a Mexican airport when she was grabbed by an admirer who wanted to take a picture with the star. Fortunately, no one was harmed in the incident.

Not all celebrity airport attacks have innocent intentions, like wanting to take a photo. In October 2018, a ‘selfie’ request turned violent in the VIP Lounge of Visakhapatnam Airport when a restaurant employee asked Indian Chief Minister Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy for a photo. Instead, Reddy was attacked with a knife and the wound was severe enough for the politician to require shoulder surgery. A tug-of-war regarding security responsibility transpired after Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu said after the event that the state government was not responsible for the politician’s security since the attack happened in the airport while the YSR Congress questioned the government’s accountability.

Paying for Protection

Paying for full-time bodyguards or security is costly but many top tier stars, for example Jennifer Lopez, Angelina Jolie, and Beyoncé, are said to pay the equivalent of £1,000,000 or more a year. The investment decision is generally deciphered by the level of the individual’s public recognition, their location and potential security concerns. Despite airports being generally secure areas, the previous stories prove protection isn’t always guaranteed in protected locations.

“…full-time bodyguards or security is costly but many top tier stars, for example Jennifer Lopez, Angelina Jolie, and Beyoncé, are said to pay the equivalent of £1,000,000 or more a year…”

Carol A. Galle, co-founder, president and CEO of Special D Events, agrees that not all celebrities require constant surveillance. “Most VIPs and celebrities have their calendars managed by someone else. They are passed from handler to handler and are often unaware of the logistical arrangements. We’ve often greeted clients at the curb, walked them into the airport and discovered that they have no idea of their next destination,” she says.

“My staff makes sure that every detail is expertly coordinated, particularly when flights are delayed,” says Galle. “That may include arranging access to a VIP lounge, coordinating re-booking, securing food and beverage or sundries, helping with lost luggage, and serving as the liaison with their driver. We also serve as human shields guarding the VIP’s privacy, helping them move through the airport and sometimes declining any conversations with fans so that they arrive at their gate or waiting vehicle on time.”

Many celebrities hire bodyguards
Many celebrities hire bodyguards

What’s in a Name?

It’s not uncommon for actors and musicians to have a stage name, yet when it comes to air travel the only acceptable name is their birth name. “While celebrities are allowed to use aliases at hotels, they cannot use an alias on any plane tickets or at security,” says Jason Meltsner, founder of WanderAbout, a New York-based seller of international premium class airfares and private jet charter brokerage Meltsner. “In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) security measures are very stringent and they apply to everyone.” This makes traveling confidentiality easier assuming employees don’t recognise the star’s birth name.

In today’s technological age, checking-in virtually for a flight can also help well-known passengers who don’t have an alternative name, limit their contact with star-struck passengers or airport employees. Of course, as Meltsner points out, “Airport employees are expected to act professionally”. Due to confidentiality policies, employees can find themselves in hot water with their employer if they announce on social media a star is on a specific flight.

Flight attendant Paula Lamont with Paula Deen (Credit: Paula Lamont)
Flight attendant Paula Lamont with Paula Deen (Credit: Paula Lamont)

While aliases for the actual ticket are not approved, other communication can avoid revealing a celebrity. “We always use aliases for the greeters and any airport signage,” says tour manager Tara Anne. In addition, she says, “I will usually send someone ahead to the airport to deliver ID’s to the airport greeter who will print boarding passes if needed.”

“Celebrities’ top concerns are discretion, comfort and convenience but the biggest obstacles for traveling celebrities is that they are easily recognised by the general traveling public,” says Meltsner. “Surprisingly, most celebrities travel with little to no extra security or privacy”, making the famous easily approachable.

Once on the plane, celebrities encounter fans and crew members. Most flight attendants and pilots are over the ‘star struck’ phase but that doesn’t mean they don’t ask for a photo or enjoy a friendly chat. Some stars are more approachable than others. Flight Attendant Paula Lamont had Paula Deen, an American TV chef and author, on one flight. She recalled, “She was super sweet. She wanted to move from first class to the back where she could have a whole row to herself to stretch out. She signed the passenger list ‘From Paula to Paula’ and took a selfie with me”.

The class of service, level of fame, and personality can influence how air travel choices are made. For instance, Meltsner tells the story of a flight where singer-songwriter and record producer, Robin Thicke, was in the American Airlines First Class lounge and was given a private corner to wait for boarding. Most of Meltsner’s celebrity clients prefer a seat assignment in the last row business or first class as they feel that it’s easier to blend in and avoid being noticed, “Perhaps it’s subconsciously that they don’t like the idea of people looking forward at them. They like to know that any potential ambush is going to be coming from the front”, says Meltsner.

“…I’ve had to engage flight attendants to move passengers who refused to stop videotaping sleeping celebrity passengers…”

Thinking ahead to the ‘what-ifs’ is important, even in a regulated area such as airport, says tour manager Tara Anne. She recalls fans who have bought boarding or lounge passes to attempt to get access to an artist or attempting to pass along gifts or touch the artist. “It can be very invasive,” she says.

Paparazzi is a whole other entity and some photographers yell and try get very close to provoke a response. While some celebrities travel with personal security, it is helpful when the airport and employees are aware of high-profile travellers. Tara Anne says that engaging airport staff directly is imperative in keeping an eye out for threats and trying to remain nonreactive if provoked. “I’ve had to engage flight attendants to move passengers who refused to stop videotaping sleeping celebrity passengers or remove someone from the lounge who was harassing an artist,” she says.

When security isn’t available, some well-known passengers use their company staff as a barrier. “I had Prince on a flight. He wouldn’t speak to me, only through his assistant. He also wouldn’t take or give me anything, I had to hand his drinks and food to his assistant,” told former Flight Attendant Kristin Wescott. This isn’t uncommon. Flight Attendant Reyna Mitchell had country music singer, Marty Stewart, on a flight. She was serving drinks and asked if he would like coffee and the manager said, “No and don’t bother him”. A moment later Stewart tapped Mitchell on the shoulder and asked for a coffee.

Demanding Divas

Delays can make any airline passenger irritable, but in October 2019 Russian actress, Lidiya Velezheva, who was flying on Aeroflot to Tel Aviv, Israel, took her displeasure to the extreme after encountering a 20-minute wait on a Moscow airport bus without a coat. That inconvenience was followed by a two-hour flight delay. The actress took her frustration out on the crew and called her fellow passengers “plebs”, while shouting that the people most likely paid with miles while clarifying that she had paid 204,000 roubles (c. £2,475) in cash. The 53-year-old woman was removed from the flight and escorted to a van.

In early January 2019, American singer Lionel Richie’s 24-year-old son, Miles ‘Milo’ Brockman Richie, was traveling through London’s Heathrow Airport when he was denied boarding to a flight. The young man turned irate and made the mistake of telling airport security that he had a bomb in his bag, then threatened to detonate it. The threat was followed by a round of violence on a security guard. A stern warning was issued and he was fortunate to avoid severe consequences – a benefit of fame!

Intoxicated passengers are removed from planes on a daily basis, and occasionally it’s a well-known name. Supermodel Kate Moss had her moment of embarrassment in 2015 when she was removed from an easyJet flight after acting out when a flight attendant refused to serve her alcohol. The following year American reality star Blac Chyna, known for her Kardashian connection, became belligerent with a flight attendant inflight and was arrested in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for public intoxication.

Flight attendant Paula Lamont with Paula Deen (Credit: Paula Lamont)
Flight attendant Paula Lamont with Paula Deen (Credit: Paula Lamont)

Flight Attendant Sam Ward tells the story of celebrity Lisa Vanderpump and her husband being on a quick flight between Burbank, California and Las Vegas, Nevada. Both passengers brought a dog on-board and ordered a Bloody Mary with extra limes, insisting they mix it themselves. Upon deplaning Ward asked if it would be disrespectful to ask for a picture. Vanderpump said, “As long as you get the angle, darling. “This [see picture] is the only one that made the cut for her,” he says.

The New Market

Airlines in general recognise their regular customers by offering private lounges and services. However, a new level of luxury has entered the scene recently. Airlines, airports and security brands have identified consumers who will happily pay for protective services in an upscale environment.

Lidiya Velezheva

At Los Angeles International Airport, ‘The Private Suite’, owned and operated by security service provider Gavin de Becker & Associates, opened in May 2017. The annual membership fee is $4,500 and then each visit costs $2,700, for a domestic departure, or $3,000 for international flights. Perks include a luxurious experience with private suites, complimentary companions, meals, drinks, massages, dry cleaning, and an on-call doctor.

“…Russian actress, Lidiya Velezheva, who was flying on Aeroflot to Tel Aviv, Israel, took her displeasure to the extreme after encountering a 20-minute wait on a Moscow airport bus without a coat…”

From a travel perspective, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) allows well-known figures to avoid most of the travelling public and paparazzi by avoiding ticket lines, swarming concourses, checking or picking up luggage, and boarding and deplaning via the tarmac rather than in the airport.

An eight-person team is assigned to each member of The Private Suite. Assistance includes: gate compound admission, escorts to the suite, two employees provide service for requests, one escorts members through private TSA screening and into one of the runway-side BMW 7 Series sedans, where a driver takes members across the tarmac to their aircraft and another serves as advance person waiting at the jet-bridge to escort members to the aircraft door while an unseen eighth person transfers luggage. Upon arrival the process is reversed.

Lena Meyer-Landrut at Nice Airport
Lena Meyer-Landrut at Nice Airport

In 2019, American Airlines expanded its VIP programme, Five Star Service, for customers traveling through Los Angles (LAX) and New York (JFK). The LAX service is in connection with The Private Suite. Further, the company BLADE, a technology-powered, short-distance aviation company, is available for travellers to avoid thick traffic by providing private helicopter transportation in both LAX and JFK along with access to private on-property areas such as Admirals Club, Flagship Lounge or Flagship First Dining.

First or business class travellers with an arriving or departing flight at London’s Heathrow Airport, can opt for a service called Heathrow VIP with choices between the more luxurious Black (starting at £2,750 for up to 3 people) or Classic Service (£2,250) which has more restrictions and doesn’t include transportation. The goal of the service is to keep the guests’ involvement to a minimum and respecting privacy by checking in and taking care of bag processing.

On the security side, Heathrow VIP provides chauffeurs from the UK private security lanes within the private suites, while passengers traveling through Terminals 2, 3 or 4, may have to pass through security before being escorted to a VIP suite. The special programme discloses that VIPs will not get special treatment when it comes to security, including bag scanning and passing through the metal detector or speaking with Border Force or Customs.

Heathrow VIP assures guests that paparazzi are not allowed in the secure area and that photography is not allowed without a permit.

“…paparazzi are not allowed in the secure area and that photography is not allowed without a permit…”

In Conclusion

It’s apparent that some celebrities embrace their fame, and even welcome the attention, while others will do anything to maintain their privacy and avoid the flying public. One thing is certain, celebrities will always be thinking ahead during air travel and welcoming luxurious accommodations, therefore, we should expect to see an increase in private airport services in coming years.

Beth Blair

Beth Blair started her airline career in 1998. She has worked in several inflight leadership roles. Most recently she holds the Manager, Inflight Safety & Health position at Endeavor Air (Delta Airlines wholly-owned subsidiary) and resides in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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